The 4-3-3a formation that defined a generation of FC Barcelonahas created more problems than it has solved in recent times.

On the 13th of January 2020, following a 3-2 defeat against Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa de España, FC Barcelona sacked Ernesto Valverde. This sacking resulted out of a stale brand of football and a slew of poor performances one after another.

The man to replace him? Quique Setién, the former Real Betis manager. 

FC Barcelona President Josep Maria Bartomeu and Sporting Director Eric Abidal unveiling Quique Setién as the club’s new head coach on the 14th of January 2020 (Photo: Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Quique came in with a lot of promises and a lot of expectations from the fans. He was the man who was going to lead the club away from the mess that Valverde had created. He was supposed to revitalize the club; give it a new look and a fresh start.

Immediately after his appointment, a few changes appeared at the club. He changed the training regime and made training sessions more intensive. The “undroppables” under Valverde: players such as Rakitić, Suarez, and Piqué—found a new motivation to play. They were going to have to perform well, both in training and in matches. Or else they were going to lose their place in the starting lineup, a thing that should always have been the case.

All was going well.

As the first match under Setién went underway, the most significant change in how the team planned to play under him appeared. In his first match as Barça coach, he employed a 3-5-2 at home against Granada. The team won the game with a narrow 1-0 scoreline. Everyone was mostly content with the win; it was a new beginning and the time to adapt to new changes: more so in the middle of a season.

Quique’s Formation Blunder

Over time, you would expect a team to get better at something new that they have been trying. However, this wasn’t the case. In the next two games, the new system—which was a breath of fresh air and a welcome change—started to show cracks. The following two games: a 1-2 away win against UD Ibiza in the Copa Del Rey, and a 2-0 away loss against Valencia at the Mestalla, showed what was lacking in the team, and why the 3-at-the-back system was failing.

Quique, who is considered a Cruyffista and a purist when it comes to possession football, was supposed to persevere. He was supposed to live and die by his philosophy and make the right approach to change a game plan that had long been stale at the club. Almost everyone expected him to keep drilling the team until they more or less perfected the new system. But, things didn’t go as expected.

Immediately after the loss against Valencia, the team reverted to the usual 4-3-3. Yes, there was now a little more energy in the players and a little more movement off-the-ball; but this tracking back did not solve the problems that the three-at-the-back system had. What it did was just revealed that Setién buckled under the pressure of having to get results rather than change things for the long-term future of the club.

However, it was the time when Setién had to be bold with his approach. He was brought to take back the team to its signature style of play, while also incorporating his ideas. Therefore, he should not have just gone back to the comfortable ways in which the team played. He should have stuck with the three-man-defense and tried to push the team to get used to something new: something that could have changed the stale ways the team had been playing for so long.

Why a Back-Three?

The team needs to change its formation to adapt back-three not only because it has become old but also because changing things around could solve a few of the problems the team has right now. The biggest problem is the lack of natural width in the team. There is nobody that is an out-and-out winger in Barcelona right now, nobody who’s playing regularly, anyway. Dembele is the only natural winger, and he is more out injured than not. 

Ansu Fati is another such player, but one cannot expect him to start each game given his age and lack of experience. Still, Fati doesn’t even get adequate game time because of all the heavyweights in the team who simply have to be given game time, regardless of whether they fit the way the team plays or not. 

The right side has its own problems. Until now, Messi had been starting the game as a right-winger on paper. However, as the game progresses, Messi cuts in, and occupies, either the half-space or plays just behind the main striker, whether it be Suarez or Griezmann. This approach does two things. One, it leaves the right-wing area of the opposition half completely void; the system consequently forces them to defend narrower. Second, it makes the center of the pitch overcrowded, which does not allow Messi any space to create scoring chances for the team.

Even the recent transfer target, Lautaro Martinez, if appointed, may fail if played as an outward winger in a bid to enable Messi to thrive in the middle. 

But a three-at-the-back system could give the forwards enough space to attack or to defend if appropriately implemented. It’s simple enough; you play a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 depending on the opposition. Play Alba and Semedo/Roberto as wing-backs, and then you have the freedom to deploy a three-men attack across the front line with two wingers on either side or play Messi just behind two strikers.

The use of wing-backs will stretch the opposition defense as Alba and Semedo are both players that can make quick runs in-behind. It also gives Messi the time and space to create goal-scoring opportunities as the defenders will be occupied by the striker and wing-backs. Messi could hugely benefit, especially during this time of his career, if a system that will complement his playing style is implemented.

A back-three system could also open a new opportunity for any other forward players. Griezmann is a player who has been suffering since he signed with Barça due to being played in unnatural positions. He has either been used as a left-winger or as the main striker, both of which aren’t his natural position. As evident from his time at Atletico Madrid and with the French National Team, he prefers to play just behind the main striker, feeding him through balls and taking advantage of the space created by him. 

With the absolutely jam-packed schedule from the restart of La Liga to the end of the season, the use of 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 could help the World Cup winner return to his natural position, playing as sort of a bridge connecting the midfield and the attack. He could even give Messi some vital rest before big games and take some pressure of creating chances off the number ten’s shoulders.

Similarly, if Lauatro Martinez joins, a three-at-the-back system would enable him enough space to either play as a convenient target or as a winger with proper support from the back. 

This formation change can also solve Barça’s defensive woes. Having already conceded 31 goals this season with an average of 1.15 goals per game, a system of three central defenders could solve this leakage of goals.

Ask the three CBs to stay back while attacking, and that will mitigate the threat of conceding goals from counter-attacks. Additionally, with Messi playing through the middle, one of the two central midfielders, either Busquets or someone else, could stay back as a cover for the CBs. In doing so, the system will protect the defense as well as remove the chance creation problem that the team currently has due to having no creative midfielders.

And with games coming hard and fast, you can change things up against weaker oppositions and get used to the way of playing. With enough practice, the 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 can be the perfect way to transition FC Barcelona into a new era, an era post-Valverde, and post the current board.

A well-functioning three-man-defense is something that Cruyff himself would be proud of. And, after such a long time away from the club’s core principles, what better way is there to start a new era for the club than trying to pay tribute to the man who made the club what it is now? What better way to resume the game after a world-halting pandemic than with something new, something exciting, something that the fans have been crying out for a very long time?